San Francisco 49ers: The Curious Case of Tight End Vernon Davis

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San Francisco 49ers: The Curious Case of Tight End Vernon Davis
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Vernon Davis' contractual displeasure has resulted in him skipping both voluntary and mandatory 49ers' workout programs.

If you are a San Francisco 49ers fan, you are probably well aware of the offseason developments surrounding tight end Vernon Davis, his contract and voluntary and mandatory team activities.

But if you are not, let's get into a little bit of review.

Back in 2010, Davis signed a lucrative deal—five years at $36.75 million—which made him the highest paid tight end in NFL history at the time.

The details of this contract were provided by ESPN.com and included $23 million in guaranteed money.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press
Davis' 2010 contract made him the highest paid tight end in NFL history at the time.

Fast forward to the 2014 offseason, and suddenly Davis is no longer happy with his current contractual situation.

No longer the highest-paid tight end—the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski ($8 million per year) and the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Witten ($7.4 million per year) make more—Davis appears poised to cash in on the numbers he put up in 2013.

We will get into the comparisons shortly.

With two years remaining on his current deal, Davis elected to skip the voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) as he sought a new contract—the details of which are provided by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

Technically, this portion of the 49ers' offseason is voluntary. And Davis forfeited a $200,000 workout bonus by skipping out on OTAs.

By definition, Davis' absence from OTAs did not classify him as a holdout. To receive that moniker, one has to skip the mandatory training camp period that started for the 49ers on June 17.

Davis' indications on whether or not he would attend this mandatory session were mixed at best.

Initially, Davis implied that he would indeed attend.

"If it's mandatory, I think I should be there," Davis told ESPN.com. "My foot could get stuck in the grass, and I may not be able to get out ... but if it's mandatory, I think I should be there."

USA TODAY Sports
There were mixed signals coming from Davis regarding whether or not he would attend the 49ers' mandatory minicamp.

Additionally, he informed the Bay Area's 95.7 The Game (h/t Bill Williamson of ESPN.com) that he planned on attending.

From this vantage point, it appeared as if Davis had made his case known well enough. The 49ers brass was made aware that the 30-year-old was unhappy with his present contract. Yet his indication that he wanted to participate in the mandatory minicamp pointed to his desire to put the team first.

But all that has changed.

Just before the June 17 start date, Davis wrote a column on TheMMQB.com (h/t Josh Alper of NBC Sports) that hinted he was planning on holding out. Here is his complete text on the matter:

In 2010 I signed a five-year, $37 million contract extension with $23 million guaranteed. It was the biggest contract for a tight end in league history. Four years later, and I’m playing at a higher level than I was then, which brings me to why I’m holding out. It’s all about getting paid what you deserve. It’s not that complicated. I want the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, and I want to be on the field this summer working toward that goal, but I have to worry about my future first. Most of my teammates and many players in the NFL understand that. A few don’t. Behind closed doors, they’ll say they’re all about the team and would run through a brick wall for the organization. But when you look closer, they’re doing things to contradict themselves. I can’t listen to anyone but my family and my advisors, because those are the people who are going to be there when football inevitably dumps me.

These statements led to speculation that Davis would skip out on mandatory minicamp—rumors that proved to be true when Davis was indeed absent at the 49ers' Santa Clara headquarters on June 17, per Adam Schefter of ESPN (h/t Alper of NBC Sports).

By skipping out on the minicamp, Davis could be fined as much as $60,000 under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, per Maiocco.

Obviously, this money is of little concern to one of the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL, but it does lead us to all the implications his absence may carry.

On one hand, Davis is an elite tight end. He posted 52 receptions for 850 yards last season and led the 49ers with 13 touchdown receptions. In comparison, Gronkowski (limited to seven games due to injury) posted only 592 yards and four touchdowns.

USA TODAY Sports
Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski might have put up bigger numbers than Davis had he not been injured most of 2013.

Witten netted 851 yards last season and eight touchdowns.

Davis also excels as a blocker and, up until the 49ers' offseason additions of Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington, he was the only legitimate speed threat on San Francisco's roster.

From this perspective, it makes sense that Davis wants to cash in on some more money. The numbers indicate that he plays at a higher level than both Gronkowski and Witten, especially when one considers the offensive stats Dallas and New England are capable of.

But here is the catch—and there is always a catch.

Davis has been eyeballing the contractual developments with New Orleans Saints' tight end Jimmy Graham, per Maggie Gray of SI Now (h/t Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee) stating, "Woohoo! That works for me," in reference to whether or not Graham would get paid.

But Graham is 27 years old, whereas Davis is 30. There is a substantial difference between the levels of play at those two ages.

USA TODAY Sports
Davis has been monitoring the contractual situation between tight end Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints.

In short, it is hard to forecast Davis even coming close to receiving the same type of money Graham is eventually due.

The matter gets even more complicated when one factors in the 49ers' contractual concerns heading into the 2014 season.

San Francisco currently stands at $5,997,790 under the $135,483,783 adjusted salary cap. That leaves a little bit of wiggle room for the 49ers to renegotiate some contracts and/or extend current players on the roster, but not much.

USA TODAY Sports
Mike Iupati is another player the 49ers have to figure out from a contractual perspective.

There are a number of other notables the 49ers need to consider when it comes to contract extensions. Two-time Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and wide receiver Michael Crabtree are entering contract years this season. Both should figure to get a hefty raise in 2015, wherever it may be.

San Francisco also has to figure out what it is going to do after picking up linebacker Aldon Smith's fifth-year option earlier this offseason.

Then there is guard Alex Boone—another holdout—who is certainly underpaid at $2 million per year.

Simply stated, there is not enough money to go around.

Barrows elaborates on this further by writing:

But the 49ers have reached a stage typical of talent-laden teams—they can’t pay what every player deserves, especially the ones with two years remaining on their current deals. The 49ers are prepared to say goodbye to either their top wide receiver, Crabtree, or their top guard, Mike Iupati—or perhaps both—when they become free agents at the end of the season. The team would love to do long-term deals with them. It just doesn’t have salary cap room.

This sort of issue is not uncommon. Long-term deals remaining how they stand are also subject to a flurry of negotiations and changes.

USA TODAY Sports
Davis argues that he has exceeded the level of play his current contract has covered.

We have seen players signed to long-term contracts cut midway through the deals. Look at former 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers as an example. This provokes the question: Is it really wrong for a player to ask for more money in a league where essentially nothing is guaranteed?

Then there is the stance that a player should play up to his contract. After all, Davis signed the deal making him the highest paid tight end at the time. His numbers have mostly lived up to that accolade. From San Francisco's perspective, it was a wise investment. 

Perhaps the biggest issue is the distraction this all causes.

"[It's] not the decision that I envisioned being the 49er way," said head coach Jim Harbaugh via Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has voiced his displeasure with Davis regarding the holdout.

Harbaugh's "team-first" mentality is something he willed upon San Francisco after taking over in 2011. But these types of incidents affect even the soundest locker rooms in the NFL. Contractual displeasure is nothing new, especially when dealing with elite athletes.

But is Davis going too far?

That seems to be the worthwhile question to ask, paired with whether or not the 49ers will give into his contractual demands.

Is Vernon Davis' holdout justified?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Perhaps San Francisco offers a modest increase to his current salary. They cannot afford to go much higher. Or will the 49ers simply move on as far as they can, emphasizing the "team first" phrase uttered by Harbaugh at so many points in recent years?

One thing is known—rare are the players who hold out for elongated periods of time. This issue, in time, will work itself out.

It just remains to be seen as to who will be the primary beneficiary.

 

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com.

 

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' coverage, insight and analysis.

 

Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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